Hello, and thanks again for checking out "Wisdom Wednesdays." In this weekly series, I embark on a journey through time, studying ancient philosophies and the principles, practices, and applications they have for our modern lives.
Last week, we delved into the Stoic dichotomy of control, exploring the empowering concept of focusing our time and energy on things we can control—our decisions and actions—rather than things outside our control (e.g., other people's words and deeds, global events). I asked you to reflect on the daily challenges you encountered and identify aspects of them that were and were not in your control. How did things go applying the dichotomy control in your daily life? What was the result of focusing exclusively on things you could control? What difference did you notice in your feelings about the situation? What about the desired outcomes?
This Week's Wisdom:
This week, we're staying put in Ancient Greece and Rome to turn our attention to another related Stoic teaching around the importance of cultivating proper judgments about the world, beautifully encapsulated by Seneca.
"We are more often upset by our own minds than by reality." - Seneca, Letters, 1.43
About the Author
These words of wisdom come from Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and playwright who lived during the first century AD. Seneca's works, particularly his moral essays and letters, provide rich insights into Stoic philosophy and offer practical guidance for living a virtuous life. Seneca wrote the above words in one of the many letters he wrote to his friend, Lucilius, to whom Seneca served as a sort of philosophical mentor. While not intended for modern readers, the above quote nevertheless provides timeless insight into the power of our thoughts and perceptions to influence our moods. It also invites us to pause during times when we feel angry or disturbed and to reconsider the source of our annoyances.
Historical Context and Relevance
Seneca lived in a time of political intrigue, social turbulence, and personal peril. Serving under the Roman Emperor Nero, who would later force Seneca to take his own life, Seneca relied on Stoic principles and practices to navigate the complexities of imperial politics. His letters, essays, and other writings sought to guide not only himself but also friends and readers in maintaining inner peace amidst external chaos and living a life of virtue and tranquility.
The Idea Over Time
Over the centuries, Seneca's observation about the power of thoughts and interpretations to shape the way we feel (and act) has resonated with countless individuals. In fact, two later Stoics, Epictetus (who you met last week) and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, would go on to express similar sentiments in their writings:
"Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things... When, therefore, we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own views." - Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5
"Today I escaped difficulties, or rather I cast them out, for they were not outside me, but within, in my judgements." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 13.9
More recent figures have echoed the Stoics in their own writings. For example, Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, exemplified Stoic principles in his approach to life's most severe adversities. In his influential book, Man's Search for Meaning Frankl explores the idea of finding purpose in suffering, a concept resonating deeply with Stoic philosophy. He famously stated, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way." This quote encapsulates the Stoic belief in the power of personal choice and inner resilience, even in the most challenging circumstances.
It's a timeless truth: often, our inner turmoil is not a direct consequence of external events but a product of our thoughts and perceptions. Thus, by changing how we think about things, we can change how we feel about them.
To be sure, this is not to say that we should excuse wrongs and engage in mental gymnastics to make ourselves feel better about the world's many injustices.
Today, the relevance of this Stoic teaching is more pronounced than ever. In an era where external events—be they global crises, societal and technological changes, or personal setbacks—seem overwhelming, the Stoic call to focus on our reactions is a powerful antidote to the sense of helplessness that seems to be spreading. It also aligns with contemporary psychological approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the #1 evidence-based therapy that highlights the significance of our thought patterns in determining our emotional and behavioral responses.
A modern example of this principle in action is the story of Nelson Mandela. His 27 years in prison could have been a source of endless resentment and despair. However, Mandela chose a different path, focusing on positive thoughts and reconciliation, which eventually led to a transformative impact on his country and the world. His life demonstrates the power of the mind to overcome even the most challenging external realities.
A more recent example is Malala Yousafzai. Shot in the head for her bravery to speak up, her response was not one of hatred or despair for her perpetrators, but of advocacy for education and women's rights. Her reaction to her circumstances has not only shaped her life but has inspired a global movement. Malala's story is a modern-day testament to the Stoic belief that our reactions can be a powerful force for personal and societal transformation.
My personal journey with Stoicism has been, in a word, enlightening.
As someone with a history of anxiety and repressed anger, recognizing that my emotional disturbances were often rooted in my perceptions rather than in external events has allowed me to approach life with a greater sense of confidence and serenity. It has been a powerful reminder that I am not a victim; even when things do go wrong, I can take charge of situations by thinking about them differently and, by doing so, responding to them more calmly.
Even today, I still review my day at the end of the day and identify areas where my judgment and actions could have been improved.
Relevance to You
For 21st-century people like us, Seneca's insight offers a path to greater emotional resilience. It encourages us to look within to understand that our thoughts and perceptions significantly influence our emotional state.
By mastering your internal dialogue, you too can face life's vicissitudes with increased calm and perspective. What would that be worth to you?
Challenge to You
This week, I invite you to reflect on your emotional responses to daily events. When something happens that upsets you, stop and ask yourself:
Are my emotions a result of the situation, or could they stem from my thoughts about it?
What am I telling myself about this situation?
Is what I'm telling myself 100% true?
Might there another way to interpret this?
How can I reframe the situation in a way that is more helpful?
And, if you find that your thinking was the real cause of your distress, what might you tell yourself in similar situations in the future to feel better and take more effective action?
By analyzing your perceptions and judgments over time, you will begin to identify common thinking patterns that tend to bring you down. From there, you can start to cultivate new ones that pick you up and help you take more effective action.
To delve deeper into Seneca:
To learn more about applying Stoic ideas in the modern age, see:
For inspiring examples of Stoicism in action, see:
Thank you for joining this week's "Wisdom Wednesdays." See you next week!